"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Secret disciples

The Gospels say that Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and prominent Jew to whom Pilate gave Jesus' body for burial, was a disciple only "secretly, for fear of the Jews." It is quite conceivable that he was also a member of the Sanhedrin who had to maintain his cover by pretending to condemn Jesus along with the rest. We don't know, but it doesn't matter. The type appears today to teach us.

It turns out that that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, was only pretending to be an atheist, and did so for the sake of power. But despite Ronald Reagan's well-publicized suspicions, it still isn't clear that Gorbachev was actually a Christian by then. Years after the failed coup leading to the end of the Soviet Union, when he could freely have come out as a Christian, he seemed to come out only as a naturalistic pagan: "Nature is my god," he said at one point. The draw toward the truth since then appears to have been St. Francis of Assisi. Nobody who isn't close to Gorbachev can say just when that fascination set in, but again it doesn't matter. Nor does it much matter, really, whether he returns to the Russian Orthodox Church or becomes a Catholic instead. What matters is what Gorbachev's spiritual journey teaches us about grace.

If he really had been a Christian before now, then it would have been wrong for him to pretend otherwise. Christians under Roman persecution had faced this sort of issue, and we know how the Church handled it. I can well understand why Gorbachev would have found it useful to pretend, just as Joseph of Arimathea might have found it useful to do so. But having been baptized into an Orthodox church, and having had every opportunity to learn the fullness of the truth, Gorbachev would not have had Joseph's excuse. Consider a parallel. When asked why, given his views, he didn't become Catholic, the late popular philosopher Mortimer Adler, a Jew, replied to the effect that he wasn't ready to give up his favorite sins. That's honesty. Gorbachev may have been unready to give up the chance to make the Soviet Union a better place, but his position still implicated him in much evil. I wonder whether he was honest to himself about that. Yet given the available evidence, I doubt that Gorbachev was a true believer when he was president.

It seems more likely to me that he suspected that Christianity might be true, and also shared enough of its values to move his country toward respecting those values. He might not have wanted to go whole hog and actually make the assent of faith precisely because he wasn't prepared to pay the cost. If so, then in that respect he wasn't just like Mortimer Adler: he was like a lot of ostensible believers. A lot of us baptized fall into indifference or heresy because we don't want to pay the full cost of discipleship. A lot of us who are neither indifferent nor heretical still make major choices which constitute a refusal of discipleship. They can be sneaky sins, such as adultery, or they can be open lifestyle choices, such as materialism. Most Christians are like that and probably always have been. Proud of my knowledge of the faith and formal piety, I've been like that myself. What makes any of us better than Gorbachev was when he was one of the most powerful men on earth? Nothing. Nothing at all. The only question is whether we accept or refuse the invitation of grace when it is extended. Gorbachev may have accepted it more authentically, even as president, than many lifelong, orthodox, practicing Christians. After all, he did take grave risks and nearly ended up dead.

That's how grace works. One of Jesus' most devoted followers, who stood by him at the foot of the cross, was a woman named Mary who had been a great sinner. So had Matthew been, before he became a disciple and was elected to replace Judas as an apostle. The important question is not where you start from but where you're headed at the end. Sometimes, ending up in the right place involves starting by honoring God while he's dead.
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